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Hahn Niman also explodes
the widely held notion that eating beef is linked to heart disease and cancer. Not true, a wide body of research says. Of course, there are always any number of new reports upending those that came before, but Hahn Niman is not cherry-picking fringe science like a climate-change denier. Her book is based on mainstream research. For example, she cites a major study by the Harvard School of Public Health which in 2010 found that although eating processed meat such as bacon and baloney was associated with a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes, "there was no increased risk at all from eating unprocessed red meats, including beef, pork, and lamb."

Like the lawyer she is, Hahn Niman builds a particularly strong case against the popularly held belief that cattle production is a major contributor to climate change. She traces this notion to one particularly well disseminated report from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) called "Livestock's Long Shadow" published in 2006. The report stated that meat—mainly beef—was responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions around the world. That figure and the assertion that beef is an environmental threat has become ingrained in public consciousness, Hahn Niman says.

"But it's totally untrue," she says in her rapid-fire delivery. "It's become this powerful urban vegan myth."

The problem with the FAO report, she says, is that it was based on flimsy science and sought to support a policy statement, namely, that confined pork and chicken operations were more environmentally benign than beef. That 18 percent figure has since been widely discredited. The Union of Concerned Scientists, no lightweights when it comes to accessing the threat of global warming, puts cattle's greenhouse gas contribution in the United States at 2 percent. The EPA has calculated that U.S. agriculture causes a total of 8 percent of America's global warming emissions. This figure is for all U.S. agriculture, not just beef production.

"Clearly," Hahn Niman writes, "the FAO figure never reflected a scientific consensus, and it had limited application to animal farming here in the United States."

'Livestock's Long Shadow" also failed to mention one of the most beneficial aspects of cattle production: carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration is the natural process of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and embedding it in the soil where it cannot harm the climate. The naturally occurring process not only helps ameliorate climate change, but it helps build and retain all-important topsoil and prevents desertification. And as it turns out, raising cattle on grass is a prime way of achieving carbon sequestration, a radical concept which, according to Hahn Niman, not only means that cattle are not part of the problem, but managed properly, they can be part of the solution.

"The greatest opportunities for carbon sequestration lie in grazing areas (rangelands and pasturelands), especially those with native grasses, as well as in diversified operations where grass is part of a multi-crop rotation," she writes.

It's worth noting that Hahn Niman makes no mention of the closure and beef recall at Petaluma's Rancho Feeding Corp. earlier this year. Because of allegations of diseased animals slipping past meat inspectors, the USDA shut the slaughterhouse down and ordered a recall of 8.7 million pounds of beef, including 100,000 pounds of BN Ranch beef. Even though the Niman's beef exceeded health and welfare standards and was not implicated in the crimes alleged at the facility, the USDA's sledgehammer approach meant BN Ranch got caught up in the devastating recall.

Hahn Niman chose not to write about the incident because it came just as she was finishing her book and there wasn't a natural place to include the episode. But the Nimans continue to fight the recall and are hoping the criminal indictments of the former owners and employees might yield some restitution.

While Hahn Niman makes a strong case that cattle are best raised on grass alone—no corn or soy to fatten them up—she doesn't condemn grain-fed beef. Because grain-fed cattle, the status quo of American beef production, spend a majority of their life on grass before heading to the feedlot, there are still benefits. And if cattle are fed grain at the right age after their digestive systems have matured, it's far less injurious to the animals, she says.

This concept of cattle as agents of environmental remediation, and much of the intellectual underpinnings of Hahn Niman's analysis, is based on the work of Allan Savory. The Zimbabwean-born wildlife ecologist argues that when cattle are integrated into a grassland agriculture, they mimic the way undulates grazed the earth for millennia, performing an invaluable biological function that he believes is the world's single best hope for reversing climate change. He has become the guru for grass-fed cattle ranchers around the world, including the Nimans.

In a nutshell, Savory advocates keeping animals in dense herds and moving them often, just as vast herds of buffalo used to do in the wild. As the animals poop and stomp the ground, they stimulate biological activity and fertility in the soil by pressing down seeds and dead plants. All this creates soil carbon and water retention, helping to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, encourage plant growth and biodiversity, and reversing desertification. It's an elegant system that can be recreated with cattle and proper grassland management.

"Cattle can substitute for wild herds to revitalize ecosystems," says Hahn Niman. "That whole idea is incredibly revolutionary."

The book makes a compelling case for beef. So why doesn't Hahn Niman eat it herself? If there's one element of the book that's less than persuasive, it's her position on vegetarianism. (She does eat eggs and dairy). Like many environmentalists, she used to believe it was her duty to forego meat. When she became a vegetarian as a freshman in college, beef was the first to go, she says.

"I now view animals as an essential part of an environmentally optimal food system," she writes. "And I consider the ideal diet to include meat, and definitely beef. But as is the case for everyone, multiple considerations enter into my daily choices about what to eat. And though I recognize that my diet is less than optimal because it does not include meat, to date I simply have not had the urge to eat it. If I ever regain the desire to eat meat, I will."

I have trouble with that one. Hahn Niman lives on a cattle ranch and is married to a rancher and argues that beef is not inherently problematic but is a source of environmental repair. So why not put her money where her mouth is and eat a burger already?

"I realize it will be hard for some people to understand," she says.

When pressed, she says, though she doesn't think killing animals is wrong, she feels too strongly about animals to eat them. As a child, she says, she cried uncontrollably for one hour after reading the end of Old Yeller.

"For me, [becoming a vegetarian] was a really natural step, because I have this really strong affinity for animals. I think it's a sensitivity I have." But she adds, "If I ever desire to eat meat, I will do so because there is no reason not to do so."

—With additional reporting by Jennifer Wadsworth.

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